Ethical Leadership as Part of the Core

Mount News: alumni magazine

File Under: core curriculum, ethical leadership

Over the last two years, the Mount has strengthened its focus on ethical leadership in a variety of ways. Past issues of Mount News featured articles about the students who participated in the Ethics Bowl for the very first time this year, as well as the speakers who have shared their wisdom on the topic. During the winter, freelance writer Arlene Meyer Werts sat down with a few members of the Mount faculty to discuss how ethical leadership is being woven into the core curriculum for students. 

Their enthusiasm is infectious as they share examples of successful class assignments. 

“I took articles out of newspapers and had the class look at character traits exhibited,” says one. 

“We combined an architectural study of the monuments in Spring Grove Cemetery with an assignment where students wrote their own epitaph,” relates another. 

“In our class, we read an article about Elizabeth Seton’s work with the poor in Chicago and how her life was transformed when she became a widow,” says a third. 

The faculty members are talking about how they brought to life the Ethical Leadership Development Initiative to their sections of Foundations Seminar, an interdisciplinary course required of all freshmen at the Mount. 

Because professors from different departments teach the many sections of the seminar, a faculty team was formed to create a structure that could work for all, yet still retain the freedom necessary to capitalize on the individual professor’s style and strengths. 

“When you ask faculty to teach something outside their major discipline, it can make them crazy,” says team member Helen Rindsberg, M.A., adjunct professor in art. “They’re entering unfamiliar territory, so it can be very stressful. But at the same time, an interdisciplinary look offers a different perspective, and that can be very exciting.” 

To provide the structure for introducing concepts of ethical leadership, the team looked first to the freshman reader, a book chosen each year for incoming students to read over the summer and discuss in their first semester seminar. 

“Our freshman reader this year was ‘The Book Thief’ by Australian author Markus Zusak,” explains James Bodle, Ph.D., professor of psychology. Set during the Nazi occupation of Germany, the novel, he says, lends itself to a study of character and ethics. “What were the ethical decisions made by the family who risks everything to hide a Jew? What were the Jewish man’s ethical decisions? What character traits were exhibited by the people who hid, who protected, who fought for Jewish people?” 

Picking up on the theme of the novel, the team introduced a documentary by noted author Elie Wiesel, “Courage to Care.” The film presents first-person accounts of non-Jews who risked their lives to rescue and protect Jews from Nazi persecution in Europe during World War II. Their stories address the basic issue of individual responsibility: the notion that one person can act — and that those actions can make a difference. 

“To lead through ethical action requires that the individual bring his or her own strengths to the table,” said Elizabeth Bookser Barkley, Ph.D., professor of English who team-teaches the Honors Program section of the seminar with Dr. Bodle. “So finding a way to help students recognize their character traits was key to the course structure.” 

At the suggestion of Tim Bryant, Ph.D., executive director of ethical leadership development, the team partnered with the national VIA (Values In Action) Institute on Character, a nonprofit organization that uses statistically validated assessments to help people learn their core character strengths and how to use them to reach maximum potential. Students could choose to complete the VIA Inventory of Strengths — it was not mandatory — as well as participate in class discussions and exercises related to the VIA Classification of Character Strengths. 

“This character strength inventory taps into the positive psychology movement,” Dr. Bodle says. “Too often people work to overcome shortcomings but ignore what they can accomplish through their existing strengths.” 

Dr. Barkley adds, “We also looked at commonalities of core, bedrock values across cultures. Combining that knowledge with what they learned about themselves, students could talk about how character traits could translate into leadership. A person whose primary strength is, for example, perseverance, would likely lead very differently from a person who scored highest in humility.” 

Tying all of these elements together is a work of nonfiction, “The Humanitarian Leader in Each of Us: 7 Choices that Shape a Socially Responsible Life” by Frank M. J. LaFasto and Carl Larson. 

“It’s such an inspirational book of how ordinary people draw on their ethical strengths to tackle what many would say is an insurmountable social problem,” says Dr. Barkley. “The authors present seven choices these humanitarian leaders make that distinguish them from those who may want to help but take no action, thinking ‘What can I as one person do?’” 

One example from the book is a 7-year-old boy who learned about the difficulties of getting clean drinking water to villages in Africa. He raised enough money to construct one well for one village. His efforts inspired others so that a whole movement called Ryan’s Wells was begun. 

“His story made such an impression on our students — that someone so young could make such a difference,” Dr. Barkley says. “As a result of reading this book, some of our students formed an organization devoted to charitable giving.” 

Dr. Bodle adds, “Evil is such a tremendous force, but it can be used as a catalyst for action. For many leaders portrayed in this book, the evil motivated them to step up. They are able to focus enough on one piece of the problem that can be addressed. A lot of situations described are truly awful, but it’s a really positive book.” 

“I loved this book,” Professor Rindsberg says, “because it wasn’t theoretical. It was very down-to-earth and accessible to freshmen.” 

Approaching ethical leadership in a way that is meaningful to 17- and 18-year-olds was essential to the work of the faculty team. 

“Ordinarily it would be unusual to have an adjunct faculty member on a curriculum team like this,” Dr. Barkley says, “but Helen’s role on the team was so important, because she has 30 years of experience teaching high school. For those of us who teach mostly upper class courses, she really helped us understand what could work for a student fresh out of high school.” 

That collaboration paid off, according to the students. “No book has made me think about the decisions I make like ‘The Humanitarian Leader’ has,” reflects one student. “Reading that book has made me rethink some of the choices I make every day and has made me want to help others in my community. The stories in that book are eye-opening and inspiring.” 

Another writes, “The main concept I learned through this course is how to put several different ideas together to draw a conclusion. We did a lot of connections with ‘The Book Thief,’ the Holocaust speakers, the VIA Character Strengths, and every book we read. I feel like I learned so much through this without even realizing it until looking back on the course. It really helped me learn to think critically and become a better analyzer.” 

Professor Rindsberg believes she learned as much as her students did through the course. “This even changes us, enabling us to look at how we can step up more to our humanitarian leadership. Many of us, along with our students, have some amazing experiences through volunteer work — Hurricane Katrina, Haiti, Appalachia — but this encourages us to step to a whole new level.” 

Dr. Bodle agrees. “The common ethic held by all of the leaders depicted throughout the course is empathy, the ability to connect on an emotional level with other humans. It fits so well with the mission of the Sisters of Charity.”